No one can accuse Tamara Schlesinger of remaining idle for long. Before a career in music, Schlesinger used to represent Scotland in international gymnastics and then moved onto the radically different world of fashion design until she found success as the front woman of the alt-folk group 6 Day Riot. Since then she has found herself touring with Belle and Sebastian and has had her music used to soundtrack the UK TV sensation Skins as well as Hollywood films like 127 Hours and Scream 4. She has released music as a solo artist under her own name and one thus far under the stage name MALKA. She even runs her own label. It’s an impressive career even when just taken on paper. And now she has returned as MALKA with a follow-up to her 2015 debut Marching To Another Beat entitled Ratatatat. No matter the quality of the music, no one could knock her for lack of effort.
As industrious as Schlesinger is, Marching To Another Beat was an album that was palpably unsure of itself, an exercise more in experimentation than an actual cohesive whole. Schlesinger’s work under the name MALKA finds her moving beyond her folk roots into an electronic pop sound, a transition with some audible growing pains on her debut. It was a promising if underwhelming record, an album full of potential that never fully capitalised on it. Her brand of electronic tinged pop that combined sweet melodies with tribal drumming was a formula that was mainly misjudged but occasionally aligned to demonstrate the type of talent that MALKA could be. It’s a recipe that her sophomore effort doesn’t perfect but mightily improves upon, resulting in an album brimming with confidence and ideas.
Ratatatat finds MALKA refining and tinkering with her sound rather than upending it, yet lyrically it is a drastically more politically tinged work than anything she has done previously. Schlesinger is not the strongest writer but she is an effective one, concisely capturing the frustration of what it is to be an average person bearing witness to all the social madness fueling the decline of civil democracies all over the world. Album opener “Fell For You” is as thorough a condemnation of Trump as I’ve heard, a song that is fueled both by furious eye rolling and a mournful disappointment that is made evident on lines like “I don’t know why/ They fell for you/ They fell for your lies.” Album closer “Circles” finds strength in the karma of “What goes around just comes around again”, a warning and message of hope against the currently oppressive force of those who making sure that “The fear is taking over.”
Lyrically, this is an album that takes in a world mired in chaos and ugliness with clear eyes and, without minimising the genuine terror many of us have felt in the past year, it comes though with an uplifting message that doesn’t feel cheap or unearned. While some of the rhetoric on display here could be sharpened and made more impactful (lines like “I wonder who’s behind the lie/ Who runs the lie /‘Cause i want my time” on “Wonder Why” is one example of some of the bland sentiments on display) this is a mainly winning, valuable album lyrically. While there is plenty of defeat and cynicism on Ratatatat, it is ultimately a hopeful record, one with a method of solidarity in the face of fear, a message that is effectively delivered without ever truly achieving any particularly great heights.
While Ratatatat represents a lyrical jump for MALKA it also represents a vast leap in musicianship. Accentuating the pop influence apparent on Marching To Another Beat her songwriting has now become stronger than it has ever been, resulting in a group of songs with rich, layered production that rarely lack for catchy melodies or strong hooks. “Breakout” is one of the strongest songs here, a light burst of sunshine with a Paul Simon‘s Graceland-esque groove that adds purpose to this warmly effervescent track. “No No No” is a driving, drum heavy track with a big finish underpinned with industrial influences that adds a punch that contrasts nicely with the more free-flowing production on most of the album. For all the clashing sounds and influences that are at work here this is an album that can suffer from a kind of pleasant blandness as the basic equation behind these songs rarely changes. When this sameness is interrupted by something like the trippy, Asian influenced standout “Gold” it is a welcome deviation from the norm, another promising suggestion of what MALKA might do next.
It’s not hard to pick up on the influences that shape the sound of Ratatatat. It’s an album that can be compared to Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., Carly Rae Jepsen, and Animal Collective all at once and still have that comparison make sense. MALKA’s brand of ‘tribal pop’ though is ultimately most heavily indebted to the idiosyncratic indie-pop work of tUnE-yArDs. These are all comparisons that don’t flatter MALKA as every one of these artists are titans in their field. MALKA can’t match the sheer imagination evident in the music of tUnE-yArDs or the pop genius of Jepsen. But MALKA can take these disparate influences and bring them together to form a cohesive whole, an achievement that is not unimpressive. Taking on its own merits, Ratatatat is a brilliant step-forward for MALKA, a consistently engaging, creative work that suggests that MALKA has plenty more to offer in the future. What she has offered now though is not something to be ignored.